This traditional steamed Chinese New Year cake, known in Mandarin as nian gao (“higher year”), is flavored with almond extract and Chinese brown sugar. It’ll bring you good luck in the new year! After a few days, the chewy cake will harden up; Grandma Ruby, who gave us this recipe, dips hardened leftover slices into beaten egg and pan-fries them in vegetable oil to soften the inside and crisp up the outside. (Watch Grandma Ruby make jai, a healthy Chinese New Year stew.)
For a less traditional approach, try our baked coconut Chinese New Year cake.
What to buy: Chinese brown sugar is made from unrefined cane sugar. It can be found in the dried goods section of Asian markets and is sold in 1-pound bricks that separate into slabs.
Sweet rice flour, also known as glutinous rice flour or mochiko, is produced from sticky rice grains and is actually gluten-free. It’s available at Asian markets in the starch section. Regular rice flour, which is produced from long-grain rice, will not yield the same results.
Dried Chinese red dates, also known as jujubes, are olive-sized, sweet, and prunelike, and are used in both savory and sweet dishes. They can be found in the dried goods section of Asian markets.
Special equipment: If you don’t have a large bamboo steamer, create your own steamer. Take two 24-inch-long pieces of aluminum foil and loosely roll and crumple each one widthwise into a 1-inch-thick piece. Form each piece into an “S” shape and place both in a large frying pan or a large straight-sided pan with a tightfitting lid. Add an inch of water and bring it to a simmer. Proceed with the recipe, placing the cake pan on top of the foil coils rather than in a bamboo steamer.
- 1Place the measured water and brown sugar in a medium saucepan. Set over medium heat and stir occasionally until the sugar has completely dissolved, about 10 minutes. (Do not let it boil.) Remove from heat and let cool until warm to the touch.
- 2Meanwhile, fill a 14-inch wok with about 1 1/2 inches of water and place a 12-inch bamboo steamer inside. (The water should not touch the bottom of the steamer.) If you don’t have a wok and a bamboo steamer, use a large frying pan and foil as described above in “Special equipment.” Bring the water to a simmer over medium heat. Coat a 9-inch round cake pan with vegetable oil; set aside.
- 3Place the rice flour in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. With the mixer on low speed, slowly pour in the sugar-water mixture, beating until smooth, about 2 minutes. If needed, stop to scrape down the sides of the mixer with a rubber spatula.
- 4Add the measured oil and continue beating on low speed until the batter is smooth and the oil is incorporated, about 5 minutes. Add the almond extract and beat until just incorporated. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan.
- 5Carefully place the pan in the bamboo steamer or on top of the foil coils. Cover the bamboo steamer with its lid or cover the wok or frying pan with a tightfitting lid or a sheet of aluminum foil. (Do not cover the cake pan directly with a lid or foil.) Steam until the cake is very firm to the touch, about 3 hours, checking every hour and replenishing the wok or pan with hot tap water as needed. While the cake is still warm, garnish with the dates (if using) and sesame seeds. Let cool on a rack to room temperature. Run a knife around the outside of the cake, then slip a thin spatula under the cake to lift it out. Serve it sesame seed side up.